Public transport touting is illegal in my country—Zimbabwe, and the authorities have been on record saying they want to eliminate it, but what is on the ground tells a totally different story.
Touts harass people, women especially at all the popular public transport termini (most of which are illegal too) across the country and no one seems to care enough.
My fear for these touts continues to grow, as they can stop at nothing to make sure that you do what they want, and from my experience, this can only be classified as terrorism in the full glare of the police.
A few weeks ago I was travelling from Harare to Bulawayo with the intention of using public transport. My sister was seeing me off, so we went to a terminus called "Showground" so that I could get a straight bus to Bulawayo.
There were a few buses that were loading passengers to Bulawayo and I thought I had the choice of which bus I was going to use.
As soon as we arrived at the terminus, more than five touts came charging at us, literally forcing us to board their bus and we had to lie that we were not travelling, we were just going to wait for someone.
The temporarily left us alone, and we just stood under a tree with my sister, feeling powerless and defeated. I did not want to board their bus, firstly because there were just a few passengers in it and also I was already scared of their aggression.
Few metres away, three police officers stood there, watching us being harassed by these touts, and never dared to raise a finger or even look our way. They looked like they did not want to be bothered.
After about ten minutes, we gathered enough courage and started walking towards another bus which looked better, silently hoping the police officers would come to our rescue if the touts struck again, but before we knew it, the touts were all over us, grabbing our handbags, threatening us with unspecified action if we refused to use the bus they wanted and intimidating us.
I tried standing up to them, but I was no match to these tough looking monsters who looked like they would stop at nothing to either harm me physically or steal my valuables. Meanwhile, the police officers had walked away in the opposite direction.
All this time, the touts were shouting obscenities to me and my sister, calling us all sorts of names, whilst trying to grab our bags.
I summoned a lot more courage and tried to plough my way through the wall of men that had formed around me and my sister, and that is when I learnt that these men would surely do anything to shake the very foundations of my courage: one of them grabbed my left breast.
As I tried to get my mind around it, another one slapped my butt, and in that very moment, another was trying to snatch my handbag, pulling my bra straps with it.
If I say I was dumbfound it would be an understatement—I was shocked. Right there, in broad daylight, I had just been sexually assaulted in front of the police.
I quickly retreated backwards, with my sister as a shield, and as she was busy protecting me, she was exposing herself to further groping all over her body.
I felt all my insecurities summoning each other, and I felt so helpless and worthless. When they finally saw that they had intimidated us enough to send their message, they left us. I wouldn't say they willingly left us, because my sister was now screaming at the top of her voice, threatening to report them.
Eventually the ordeal was a little bit over. That afternoon, I ended up boarding that bus—a bus with operators that sought the services of touts who fearlessly attack women in broad daylight.
I had been looking forward to my Bulawayo journey, because it was my first time travelling that route. My friend Addi had told me about the beauty of the Munyati and Kwekwe Rivers which are on the highway, and I was looking forward to snap a picture or two.
When we passed Kwekwe River, I was in tears, shook from what had happened to me, and I do not even remember if I saw Munyati River—my journey had been ruined.
From the whole ordeal, what hurt me most was that I was not only harassed in front of the police, but I was also sexually assaulted, all in the name of being forced to use a service I did not want to use.
This is the first time I have gained enough courage to write about that ordeal; an ordeal that left my self-esteem injured more so because the fingerprints of that tout are still visible on my blouse, right there on the breast. I have not washed it yet. I do not have the strength.
I feel so let down by the authorities, and I know hate is a strong word, but the experience left me with nothing but hate for the system that promises to restore order but does not make a deliberate effort and continues to pay lip service to a problem that has left many women vulnerable, some even dead.
I remember reading a story of a pregnant woman who was hit on the tummy by these touts at another popular bus terminus and ended up losing both her life and her baby only a few hours later. Isn't that enough cause to act? What exactly will it take then?
I am thinking of taking self defence classes, or even become a karateka, but then again, I see that as fighting violence with violence, which is not an option.
One thing I know for sure is that I will not stop talking and writing about how vulnerable women are at the hands of touts until someone hears us out. Something has to give, and until then, I will never stop. That feeling of helplessness that afternoon triggered something in me that speaks to the protection of a sisterhood, and that sisterhood involves all women who may find themselves in that predicament.
This International Women's Day I am taking a stance to fight using my voice—my keyboard and screen. One day the noise will be too much to ignore.
All I need is to travel around my country in peace, but I cannot because the authorities are turning a blind eye to a problem—because it is garbed in a dress and looks like a woman.